John On Wine – Wine blends, both European and local
Originally published in the Ukiah Daily Journal newspaper on Thursday, October 2, 2014
Recently, I received an email from David and Merry Jo Velasquez of Cannon Falls, MN; after visiting the tasting room where I work and finding this wine column, they visited France and suggested a column, “outlining the GSM grape varieties that make Châteauneuf-du-Pape wine so popular, and which winemakers are doing similar blends in Northern CA,” as well as exploring the “French law/custom [that] allows 13 grape varieties to be used in CdP wines…[and] other stringent requirements which were fascinating to learn about.” They also mentioned the “terroir” (the land, climate, the environment grape vines grow in) and sent some terrific photos.
Châteauneuf-du-Pape is a town in the Rhone wine region of southeastern France. Red varieties allowed are Cinsaut, Counoise, Grenache Noir, Mourvèdre, Muscardin, Piquepoul Noir, Syrah, Terret Noir, and Vaccarèse (Brun Argenté). White and pink varieties are Bourboulenc, Clairette Blanche, Clairette Rose, Grenache Blanc, Grenache Gris, Picardan, Piquepoul Blanc, Piquepoul Gris, and Roussanne. The 13 varieties historically mentioned by David and Merry Jo have expanded to 18, as today the Noir (black/red), Gris (grey), and Blanc (white) versions of individual grape varieties are considered separate.
Famed for GSM (Grenache, Syrah, Mourvèdre) Rhone blends, some of my favorite wines tasted have come from Châteauneuf-du-Pape. By far, most of Châteauneuf-du-Pape wines are red, and most use Grenache as the base, or largest element, of their blends. Lighter in body, two things allow for wines of greater intensity:
First, yields are reduced with local laws prohibiting greater than 368 gallons to be produced per acre of fruit. By dropping fruit during the growing season, the remaining fruit receives greater vitality from the vine, and the result is greater flavor. Second, instead of holding the wines in oak barrels, and having the oak overpower the flavors of the grape, much of the wine is held in concrete containers, a neutral container that better protects against oxidation than oak during winemaking. Here, in northern California, there are a number of wineries using Rhone varietals who have purchased concrete ‘eggs’ to make their wine in.
Blends done right are wines greater than the sum of their parts. Often Cabernet Sauvignon, a big firm wine, will have some Merlot blended in as the Merlot will soften the wine; and the reverse is true, an overly soft Merlot can benefit from the backbone a little Cabernet Sauvignon can offer to the blended wine’s structure.
Just as Cabernet Sauvignon and Merlot are often blended together, so too are Sauvignon Blanc and Semillon, and Zinfandel and Carignane. There are many ‘classic’ blends, and they are classics because they work, the wines blended are often better than the wines held separate.
In California, as long as there is 75% or more of any single wine grape variety in the wine then that grape variety can be used on the label; in other words, the Zinfandel you buy at the store has at least 75% and up to a full 100% of Zinfandel in the bottle, but might contain some other wine grape varieties – up to 25% in total. There are many local wineries that make stellar blend wines, and do not bother with hitting 75% of any varietal, instead giving their blend wine a fanciful proprietary name like Black Quarto, Atrea Old Soul Red, or Campo de Stella.
In Europe, wines are named for the areas they come from, and a Châteauneuf-du-Pape red wine can be made from any of nine grape varieties and is most often a blend, while a red wine from Bordeaux will be made from a shorter list of grapes, Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Merlot, Petit Verdot, Malbec and Carménère. Just as Châteauneuf-du-Pape has a protocol, part law and part tradition, for making wine, so too does Bordeaux, and nearly every other geographically identifiable wine area in Europe.
Meritage (rhymes with heritage, it is an American wine, not French, so please do not force a French mispronunciation) is a wine made outside of Bordeaux using the grapes used in Bordeaux, where an individual grape variety does not meet the minimum percentage threshold allowing the wine to receive a grape variety name. Starting as a California only association of blended wines, Meritage wines expanded first to the United States, and then internationally.
In all of the United States, there is only one geographically identifiable area that makes wines from an agreed upon list of grapes, and following an agreed upon production protocol, following the European model, but is by agreement among the participating wineries and not under force of law, and that unique in America area is Mendocino County, and the wines are Coro Mendocino.
Coro is Italian for Chorus and, just as a chorus should be a harmonious blending of voices, Coro wines should be a harmonious blending of grape varieties. Every Coro Mendocino starts with Zinfandel, Mendocino County’s most planted grape, and must contain no less than 40% and no more than 70% Zinfandel. Of note is that there is not enough Zinfandel, 75% minimum, to label the wine as a Zinfandel. The supporting ‘blend’ grapes include Syrah, Petite Sirah, Carignane, Sangiovese, Grenache, Dolcetto, Charbono, Barbera, Primitivo, plus up to 10% “free play” where an individual participating Coro Mendocino winery can allow their signature style to shine through, with an Anderson Valley winery blending in some Pinot Noir or inland Mendocino winery blending in some Cabernet Sauvignon as an example. None of the supporting blend grapes is to exceed the percentage of Zinfandel in the finished wine.
Coro Mendocino wines also adhere to winemaking protocols, with wine chemistry limits and oak and bottle aging spelled out for participants. Perhaps the most unique aspect of the Coro Mendocino program is that each winery puts their wines through a rigorous quality assurance regimen; first the wines are blind tasted several times as barrel samples by all the participating wineries with constructive criticism offered up for each wine in an effort to produce the very best wines possible, and then the wines go through a pass/fail, Coro/No-Coro, blind tasting before they may carry the Coro Mendocino label.
Each Coro within a vintage, winery to winery, is different, just as each Coro within a winery, vintage to vintage, is different, and yet there is a thread that ties all Coro Mendocino wines together, in much the same way that all wines from Châteauneuf-du-Pape or Bordeaux are tied together, but with an assurance of quality.
Barra, Brutocao, Clos du Bois, Fetzer, Golden, McFadden, Parducci, and Testa each made a Coro in the most recently released vintage, 2011, and the wines can be tasted and purchased at each individual winery’s tasting room, or all can be purchased at SIP! Mendocino in Hopland. The best of the Coro from each vintage, produced from organically grown grapes, is also available at the Ukiah co-op and on Patrona restaurant’s wine list in Ukiah.